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THE IMPROVISER'S TOOL KIT: Skills For Thinking and Acting Under Pressure workshop handout

     The ability to think and act under pressure is "emotional agility," which is the psychological and emotional capacity to navigate uncertain and unfamiliar situations without being derailed by the stress response.  The skills learned through improvisation games and experiences replace the natural self-protective defenses of over-thinking, emotional over-reactions, desire to control events and need for
Hand-Out created by Jude Treder-Wolff LCSW CGP MT

Emotional agility is defined by  Mind-Fitness Training Institute as the "cognitive and psychological adaptability, or the ability to think rapidly and creatively under stress, anticipate or quickly adapt to uncertain or changing situations and improvise when faced with obstacles." It is difficult to impossible to think on our feet when the stress response is flooding us with cortisol and adrenalineand it takes nothing more than a perceived sense of threat for the stress response to shut down our prefrontal cortex which is responsible for reasoned judgment and long-range thinking. 
Research shows that the best approach to developing the ability to think and act effectively under pressure is to play games and engage in creative experiences that produce a controlled sense of crisis, in which the stakes are low but there is authentic emotional energy and commitment. 
     The improviser has no props, no script, and no agenda, so is primed for the emotional agility that frees us to think and act in response to the present moment. The improviser's toolkit is a set of skills, a way of thinking, an understanding of the dynamics of human interaction, and generosity of spirit. Emotional connection is central to good improvisation and to the success of the important mission that social workers and other professionals who work with people carry out every day.
Training in Applied Improvisation accelerates social connection. Skills learned in a positive emotional atmosphere are more likely to be recalled and used when we are under stress or being tested.
Social Connection: Improvisation occurs through human interaction within a set of agreements or structures that frame the field of choices. The fact that people are coming together to both play with uncertainty and learn something new can heighten the bonding experience. People do not have to open up about deeply personal aspects of their lives to feel connected through improvisation, because everyone is vulnerable, the spirit of improvisation is supportive and collaborative, and the experience itself is a way of revealing self to others. Like fans rooting for a mutually-beloved team, everyone who engages in the process of improvisation has a stake in what develops through the collaboration.
Learning that if we are not afraid to fall we will be able to learn and grow is the foundation of effective psychotherapy. If
something has never happened before we might not believe it can happen at all, but history shows us that as we work at gaining a sense of mastery over a new role, strength or skill set we will struggle, flail and may have to try again and again. Improv games train us to learn from every one of those tries and stay open to the unknown and unfamiliar. In this way training in improvisation is an ideal process for therapists to learn techniques and skills that enhance real-time responsiveness to the twists and turns of a therapeutic process, and can be useful tools for clients as well. In an improvisation, the creative process has no predictable outcome, but the process itself is an exercise in possibility. Teaching clients how to navigate the emotional space between where things are now and where we want to go is one of the most important and ongoing functions of effective psychotherapy and the change process.

The therapeutic benefits of engaging in improvisation are expanded upon in this blog post: Improvisation and Cognitive Flexibility: Changing the Way We Think Changes Everything

Read about the concept of neuroperception and how this impacts emotional agility on The Applied Neuroscience Blog. This blog is a very easy read about complex and important science that helps us understand the science behind human interaction and how to maximize successful the therapeutic and educational process.

The 5 fundamental skills of dynamic interaction learned through improvisation are:

  • Listening – 
  • Accepting/Receiving 
  • Yes...and
  • Agreement 
  • Collaboration
  • GAMES:

    • Connect group members to one another through a low-risk task;
    • Identify the diverse meanings of a single word or concept among people;
    • Identify the barriers to communication that exist even among people from the same culture and similar background;
    • Explore and discuss the internal response to a somewhat open-ended directive;

    Group members are directed to write down as many words as they can that associate with the word RUN within 60 seconds. Then the group breaks down into smaller groups of 3 or 4. The group gets a point for every word that all the members have in their list.                                                                                         Debrief: What are the implications of the (frequent) reality that it is unlikely the group will have more than 1 word, if any, in common?
    What internal monologues were triggered by this task?
    What self-awareness can be generated by looking at the internal monologues triggered by this task?

  • Experience focused listening from the stand point of speaker and listener;
  • Heighten awareness of internal talk that interferes with active listening;
  • Heighten awareness of internal self-protections from the intimacy of being heard without interruption;
  • Practice the most fundamental skill of the improviser - to receive what is communicated without judgment;

Participants pair up, and sit facing one another. The pair decides who will be Person A and who will be Person B. A random suggestion is generated from the group. Person A then talks for 30 seconds without stopping, making eye contact with Person B the entire time. Person B does not speak during this time. After 30 seconds, Person B is directed to repeat back as much as he/she remembers of what was just said. A new random word is chosen and Person B talks for 30 seconds while Person A listens, making eye contact the entire time. Person A then repeats everything he/she recalls. Then both players have a free-form conversation for approximately 1 minute. 

Debrief: What was it like to talk and maintain eye contact with another person for this period of time? What was happening in your mind as you listened? What, if anything, popped up in your mind that may have interfered with the flow of ideas when you were the talker? How does this exercise speak to the dynamics of successful interaction when under pressure?

Develops greater emotional connection within the group through low-risk personal sharing;
Is an opportunity for participants to think on their feet under pressure;
Cultivates the improviser's tool of following a thread of ideas and expressing something without knowing what will come of it;
Cultivates spontaneity and creative flow;
Words drawn from the conversations between players in the last exercise are written on small pieces of paper, folded up and put in a bowl or basket. A participant pulls a word and then begins a spontaneous, brief story that starts with the word followed by "takes me to..." e.g. the word pulled is "dog" so the player says "dog takes me to the time I was out jogging and I saw this dog that looked lost to me, it had a collar on and seemed friendly..." After a brief, personal story (it is important that the story reveal something true about the person that is a memory or event and ideally what the word association takes him/her to even if it is indirect, e.g. the word "dog" takes me to "I never had a dog in my life because I don't really like them, I do like birds and I had a parakeet that used to imitate all the sounds in our household...etc"). 
Debrief: What happened internally during this exercise? 
How does personal sharing impact the interaction within a group?
What is it like to think on your feet when an entire group is paying attention?

Danish Clap
Get out of analytic mindset and fear of making mistakes;
Focus on partnership through nonverbal connection;
Promote a sense of play and a playful approach to new experience;


Free up the judging/evaluating functions in our thinking minds that interfere with relating to the here-and-now;
Experience what happens internally when the only rule is to say a word and there is no way to get it wrong;
Open up creative pathways for improvised scenes or for more free-flowing conversations with others (applicable to therapy or education settings);
Develop spontaneity within a group and within an individual;
Practice paying attention and being ready to respond without knowing when the moment to act will come;
One person starts off by saying any word that comes to mind. The person to the left says the absolutely first thing that comes to mind in response. There should be no pause to search or edit during this exercise, which is for pulling down those barriers to creative thought and the free flow of energy. Each person receives a word, responds with the first thing that comes to mind, then delivers a word to the next person and so on around the circle. After a round or two of that, a word is tossed to someone in the circle by pointing to them in a very focused, committed fashion, and this person responds by saying the first thing that comes to mind, then tosses a word to someone else in the circle. 
MIRROR SCENE                                                                                                   Objectives:                                                                                                     Practice the yes...and, agreement and collaboration skills of dynamic interaction; Heighten awareness of the creativity that can be develop through observing these rules of dynamic of interaction;                                                                               Heighten listening and receiving from a partner and building on offers;                 Demonstrate how thinking and acting under pressure can be built upon curiosity and creativity;                                                                                                           Two players accept a suggestion from the group. Player A begins a movement based on that suggestion, and Player B begins to mirror that movement. After approximately 30 seconds of silent movement one of the players begins a conversation. The movement continues as they conversation evolves and the relationship between the 2 characters is revealed. These scenes are about 1-2 minutes long, and end when the group is on the same page and knows who these people are to each other. Debrief: How did initiating with movement inform the creation of this relationship? What was it like to work without a script to create a story with another person? How is this process like actual encounters with others in therapeutic settings? How does movement inform the way people relate to one another?
CRIME CONFESSION                                                                                                   Objectives:                                                                                                    Demonstrate the power of group collaboration;                                            Develop skills in connecting with the emotional energy of the group and using it to    co-create;                                                                                                            Experience giving and receiving cues and using them to co-create with others;  Demonstrate the power of the social environment in shaping our responses and   emotions;
A player volunteers to the "criminal" and leaves the room. The group then decides what the criminal is guilty of, e.g. what he/she did and to whom. The crime can have as much complexity as the group feels prepared to work with. One or more players volunteer to be the interrogators. The group will be a kind of chorus signalling whether the "criminal" is hot, warm or cold in responding to the interrogation and trying to determine what the crime is. When the "criminal" is hot, the group says "Aaahh" indicating acute interest and approval. When the "criminal" is cold, the group says "Oh" in a vocal tone that indicates disinterest and disapproval. When warm, the group says "hmmmmm." Through the interaction between the interrogators picking up on what the "criminal" is getting right and the group signals the criminal is led to a confession of the crime chosen by the group. When he/she says "I confess to _____" the game is over.
Debrief: How does the social environment impact our behavior and emotional life? How did the group collaboration play out? How might the social environment be impacting our client in their attempts to change? What signals from the social world encourage change and what signals shut it down?
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer, President of Lifestage, Inc and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS a live show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages. 


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